Connellsville Area High School is set to celebrate a milestone achievement when its 50th annual high school musical takes to the stage in just a few months, and celebration events to mark the milestone are in the works.

Justin Teets, a former performer and current production coordinator of the high school musicals, is also serving as the chairman of the anniversary celebration committee. Teets said they are expecting around 400 individuals for the event, which will be used as a fundraiser for the musical program.

The event, set for 2:30 p.m. Feb. 29 at New Haven Hose Fire Hall in Connellsvillle, will feature a catered, sit-down meal as well as 10 to 12 performances from participants in past musicals. There will be a ceremony to thank all of those who have been involved with the program over the past 50 years as well as a remembrance of past director, the late Henry Molinaro. Teets said the cost of tickets has yet to be determined as of press time, but are expected to go on sale just after the Thanksgiving holiday, and folks can follow updates on Facebook at Connellsville 50th Musical Celebration.

“It’s imperative that the community show support for both the musical and the anniversary celebration,” Teets said. “Funding everywhere is tight, and we want to make sure that the kids see that the community is supporting them.”

Joining Teets on the committee are Merle Stutzman, the first director of Connellsville’s musicals; Barry Craig, a performer in the the high school’s first musical; and Chip Rowan with Armstrong Cable.

Stutzman was the one to get the tradition started in 1970, and he was at the helm as director for 35 years.

Stutzman said it was just after the new high school was built that he came up with the idea for the district to put on a musical production.

“I walked out onto the new stage, and I said, ‘This was built for musicals,’” he said.

Once members of the school board agreed to his request, the next order of business was choosing a musical and then getting students to participate.

“The first show we ever did was ‘Oklahoma,’” Stutzman said.

His choice might have had something to do with the fact that he had played the lead role in the production while attending high school at Westmont Hilltop in Johnstown.

Stutzman added that it wasn’t hard to get students to come out to participate in the first musical, and after they had the first one under their belts, it was smooth sailing.

“We would go on trips to New York or wherever and I would get to know the students - not only their talent, but also their personalities and so I would look for musicals that would compliment the students I had,” he said. “My production staff was tremendous and they would spend hours choosing the right student for the role that suited them.”

While it might have been tough on his family during musical season, Stutzman said he loved that it gave 200 to 300 students the opportunity to shine or be recognized in some way.

“I enjoyed every moment of it, but now my enjoyment comes from seeing the students I had doing things in the field — producing musicals or singing professionally or teaching music,” he said. “I think the arts have been very important in Connellsville. A lot of students are going on to do tremendous things.”

When Stutzman made the decision to retire in 2005, he handed the reigns over to Henry Molinaro, who directed nine shows.

When Molinaro resigned as director due to health issues, it was Michelle Harbaugh who kept the tradition going as director.

With five shows under her belt, she has the distinct honor to direct the 50th anniversary show — “The Little Mermaid,” which is scheduled to take to the stage Feb. 27 through March 1.

Harbaugh said they wanted to choose a show for the 50th anniversary performance that had a lot of roles and that would be challenging for the orchestra and set crew.

“’The Little Mermaid’ provides opportunities for our students to have fun as they develop their acting, singing and dancing skills,” she said. “There are many leading, supporting and ensemble roles, which will provide stage experience for all of our students.

“The music is beautifully written and it’s also challenging, providing an opportunity for our vocal and instrumental students to shine,” Harbaugh added. “The sets and technical aspects will provide new and wide-ranging, hands-on experiences for our student crews and student directors.”

Harbaugh said tickets to “The Little Mermaid” can be purchased now at www.connellsvillemusical.ludus.com, but the ticket booth will be open starting Feb. 4 and will be open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon. Thursday’s performance is $10 and the Friday, Saturday and Sunday performances are $12.

“It’s a show for the young and the young at heart - a show for any age really,” Harbaugh said. “It’s not a heavy show, but the plot’s there, and it provides a lot of entertainment. It transports the audience to another world filled with interesting characters and everyone will enjoy the familiar songs and the colorful staging.”

Teets, an investment executive at Somerset Trust Bank, has been involved in the current musical productions for several years now.

“To me, the musical was my favorite memory in high school,” he said. “There truly is just no better program. It not only teaches about the arts, but it teaches responsibility, and there’s a business aspect to it as the students have to sell advertising space. It teaches in so many ways that the public doesn’t even see.

“And I know that musical weekend means a lot to the community,” Teets added. “It’s one of the greatest traditions. The town is buzzing and businesses are filled for dinner by people on their way to the show. I want to make sure the tradition stays alive and well in Connellsville for another 50 years.”

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